Gratitude in Healthy Relationships

a happy middle aged couple face to face, about to kiss, smiling

What does it take to make and maintain a good relationship? Many of us might answer love or affection, both of which are important, as is communication. But an often overlooked yet essential component of any successful relationship is actually gratitude. Being grateful for those we care about and the things that they do for us builds a foundation of appreciation for that person and enables us to not only recognize their importance in our lives but to respect all that they do to make us happier or improve our lives. While it may not be anyone’s initial guess as to what keeps a good relationship going strong, it is nevertheless key to the happiness of each person involved.

Gratitude Can Help Strengthen Relationships

A recent study from the University of Georgia proves the effectiveness and importance of gratitude in relationships, particularly romantic ones. Published in the journal Personal Relationships, study co-author, Ted Futris, an associate professor in the College of Family and Consumer Sciences reveals that he and his colleagues “found that feeling appreciated and believing that your spouse values you directly influences how you feel about your marriage, how committed you are to it, and your belief that it will last.”

The study itself involved a telephone survey which asked 468 married individuals questions about their financial wellbeing, demand/withdraw communication, and expressions of spousal gratitude. What the researchers discovered was that the latter most criteria appeared to be the most consistent predictor of marital quality. Lead author and former doctoral student in the College of Family and Consumer Sciences and current postdoctoral research associate at UGA’s Center for Family Research, Allen Barton, believes that “Even if a couple is experiencing distress and difficulty in other areas, gratitude in the relationship can help promote positive marital outcomes.”

Higher Levels of Gratitude Can Protect Relationships from Divorce

In fact, the researchers found that higher levels of demonstrated spousal gratitude protected men and women from being more prone to divorce, as well as protected women’s marital commitment from the negative effects which can arise from poor communication during conflict. Futris explains: “we found that when couples are engaging in a negative conflict pattern like demand/withdrawal, expressions of gratitude and appreciation can counteract or buffer the negative effects of this type of interaction on marital stability.”

This study is the first of its kind to document the effects that spousal gratitude and appreciation can have on the overall quality and durability of relationships and marriages. Commenting on these findings, business psychologist and psychoanalytic psychotherapist, Dr. Douglas LaBier states: “it highlights important information about what underlies positive relationships in general, whether they are intimate, work-related, and even those in broader societal contexts. That is, feeling and showing gratitude in relationships goes a long way in building and maintaining positive, mutually supportive connections. And the latter are crucial for both personal and societal wellbeing.”

A Little Appreciation Goes a Long Way

What Dr. LaBier says is true. Mutual appreciation and demonstration of that appreciation goes a long way in any relationship and helps each member involved feel as though their time and effort means something and is valued. Gratitude is an essential, though unfortunately often overlooked,  aspect of expressing love. To truly love someone is to be grateful not only of their presence in our lives but to appreciate all of the things they do for us to make us feel happy, loved, and valued. Gratitude can also help in moments of conflict when miscommunication often occurs to enable relationships to last and endure despite moments of tension.

Futris mentions that when “couples are stressed about making ends meet, they are more likely to engage in negative ways-they are more critical of each other and defensive, and they can even stop engaging or withdraw from each other, which can then lead to lower marital quality.” But, he notes, demonstrations of gratitude can interrupt this toxic cycle, helping couples overcome these negative communication patterns in their relationship, which may be influenced by a number of different stressors.

In successful relationships, even when couples argued, as all couples do, they still felt as though they were appreciated by their partners and felt that this appreciation was communicated regularly enough that occasional conflict was not able to take away their feelings of value and love. In this way, gratitude acts as what can hold a relationship together, through thick and thin, through the best and worst of times. So long as we feel as though we’re not only wanted but appreciated, that we mean something, we are more likely to feel happy when we’re together with our loved one, instead of feeling as though we might be better appreciated somewhere else.